Liberal Arts Blog — The Hermitage (Part I) — Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son,” Da Vinci, “La Madonna Litta,” El Greco, “Peter and Paul”

Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Design, Film, and All Things Visual Day

Today’s Topic: The Hermitage (Part One) — Rembrandt, “The Prodigal Son,” Da Vinci, “La Madonna Litta,” El Greco, “Peter and Paul”

Have you ever been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg? I have not. So I’ve decided to do a virtual tour and share the experience. This is the first in a series. Each will highlight three of the masterpieces out of the three million works housed there. After the Hermitage, I will proceed to the closest equivalent in Stockholm, Berlin, Vienna, and Oslo — all cities I have never had the pleasure of visiting. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

LA MADONNA LITTA (c 1490) — was it the work of Leonardo? does it matter? what else is worth knowing about it?

1. Before the “puritanical” Council of Trent (1545–1563) put the kibosh on the Virgin Mary’s breasts, “nursing Madonnas” were a staple of Renaissance art. In Italian they were called “Madonna del Latte” (Madonna of the milk). In Latin “Madonna lactans” (breast-feeding Madonnas). Also featured in Russian icons.

2. What the heck is a European goldfinch doing in Christ’s left hand? Well, the goldfinch was a symbol of the “Passion” that is the week leading up to the Crucifixion. Why? Because the European goldfinch eats thistles (ie. thorns) and Jesus wore a crown of thorns the day of his death.

3. The arched windows are reminiscent of the openings in Leonardo’s “Madonna of the Carnation” (see third link below).

NB: Originally tempera on wood, the panel was transferred to canvas and repainted when acquired by the Hermitage in 1865 by Tsar Alexander II from the Italian diplomat Count Antonio Litta from whom the painting gets its name. “The practice of conserving an unstable painting on panel by transferring it from its original decayed, worm-eaten, cracked, or distorted wood support to canvas or a new panel has been practiced since the 18th century. It has now been largely superseded by improved methods of wood conservation.” (See fifth link.)

Nursing Madonna

Madonna of the Carnation

European goldfinch

Transfer of panel paintings

THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON (1667–1669) — Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)

1. Kenneth Clark (art historian): “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted.”

2. “The son has returned home in a wretched state from travels in which he has wasted his inheritance and fallen into poverty and despair. He kneels before his father in repentance, wishing for forgiveness and the position of a servant in his father’s household, having realized that even his father’s servants had a better station in life than he.” What does dad do? He throws the biggest party ever!

3. The son’s brother who was a good boy is not thrilled. “Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” Is this fair? Are you kidding me?

NB: Dad’s reply: “But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” HW Janson, the author of what was for generations the bible of art history, said of this work that it could well be “the most moving” of Rembrandt’s paintings. The Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen wrote an entire book about it. I am inclined to agree with Janson. To me the story of these two brothers echoes that of two others: Cain and Abel. No, life is not fair.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)


PETER AND PAUL (1592) — El Greco (1541–1614)

1. El Greco’s appeal is universal and timeless. New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman: “to Greeks [El Greco] became the quintessential Greek painter; to the Spanish, the quintessential Spaniard.” The USSR put El Greco’s “Peter and Paul” on a postage stamp. And US President Jimmy Carter would say “”the most extraordinary painter that ever came along back then… and maybe three or four centuries ahead of his time.” But, to me, El Greco harkens backwards to the Byzantines as well as forward. Whichever way, wow!

2. Paul is on the right (above) with his left hand on the book. His right hand is close to but not touching Peter’s. Paul’s is the dominant hand, and although the younger man, is the dominant figure. Peter is gentle and sorrowful and perhaps wracked with doubt. Paul is full of fire, conviction, and certainty. Peter is a monochromatic light brown and gray. Paul is a draped in red. What a striking contrast, what a beautiful pairing!

3. El Greco did a very different, more colorful version of Peter and Paul which is in the National Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona. (Second link below.) In it the sword in Paul’s left arm is a symbol of his martyrdom. In Peter’s left hand are the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

NB: To me, the El Greco is the most perfect of today’s three paintings. The detail that most haunts me is the juxtaposition of the vertical and horizontal pairing of the heads and hands. And the twain shall never meet. The yin and the yang.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul (El Greco, St Petersburg)

Saint Peter and Saint Paul (El Greco, Barcelona)

El Greco


1. I can’t wait to get to St. Petersburg! How about you?

2. The goldfinch in the Madonna makes me think of a rubber ducky.

Hermitage Museum

A Tour of the Hermitage in 20 Artworks



PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned recently or ever related to art, sculpture, design, architecture, film, or anything visual.

This is your chance to make some one else’s day. And to cement in your own memory something cool or important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that is close to your heart.

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, and art.